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An immensely popular writer of juvenile and young adult fiction, Louis Sachar wrote the ”Wayside School” series, the ”Marvin Redpost” series, the young adult book Holes (1998), as well as several other books. Holes, which won both the National Book Award and a Newbery medal, was later made into a major motion picture. He later published Small Steps (2006), a sequel to Holes. Sachar’s books are nearly always humorous and very often poignant looks at growing up. His protagonists are generally outcasts who gain social and personal acceptance through their experiences with other people.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Life Shapes Work
Sachar was born in East Meadow, New York, and at age nine moved with his family to Tustin in Orange County, California. Sachar’s interest in ”the outcast” could well have been influenced by his middle- and high-school years. The counterculture, which began in the mid-1960s and was embraced by young, white, middle-class students, emphasized personal freedom and freedom from the need to conform. This widespread rebellion of American youth was particularly strong in California.
Following high school, Sachar had started college in Ohio at Antioch when he received news of his father’s sudden death. Returning to California to be near his mother, Sachar took the next semester off and worked in retail sales. With greater aspirations, Sachar returned to school, majoring in economics at Berkeley, where he also took creative writing classes. When searching for an easy class to replace a class in Russian literature he had dropped, Sachar signed up to be a teacher’s aide in an elementary school. He loved working in the school, and later credited this experience with shaping his future interest in writing books for children.
Deciding to Write
After graduation from Berkeley, Sachar took a job as shipping manager for a sweater factory in Connecticut while writing Sideways Stories from Wayside School (1978) in the evenings. Sachar organized his book around the stories of different kids in a school, naming his characters after children at the school where he had worked. After being fired from his shipping job seven months later, he decided to return to law school. He sent out the final manuscript of Sideways Stories to publishers at the same time that he applied to law schools. He received the news that the book was accepted for publication during his first week at the University of California Hastings College of Law. Thus began Sachar’s personal struggle over the next several years between his desire to write and his chosen law career. He finished law school and passed the bar, writing three more children’s books at the same time. Sachar finally resolved his dilemma by working part-time as a lawyer for several years, writing in the mornings and practicing law in the afternoons.
Sachar’s books in the ”Wayside School” series are what he describes as ”complete fantasy.” Humorous and slightly outrageous, they chronicle events in a school with thirty stories but only one classroom on each floor. Other Sachar titles are more realistic. In There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom (1987), Sachar writes of Bradley Chalkers, a schoolroom outcast who is his own worst enemy, and Jeff Fishkin, the new kid who slowly befriends him. The theme in this book is that of an outcast who eventually learns to like himself and make friends. This theme is revisited in many of Sachar’s books.
Sachar published his most critically acclaimed book, Holes, in 1998. In the novel, Stanley is wrongly accused of stealing a pair of sneakers and is sent to Texas’s Camp Green Lake juvenile detention facility. There the harsh female warden assigns him the task—along with other boys held there—of digging five-feet-deep holes in the camp’s dried-up lake bed. Stanley and his friend Zero manage to escape, and Stanley then works to get rid of the Yelnats curse that has plagued his family for three generations. The book proved immensely popular, and was adapted for film by Disney in 2003.
Sachar followed up the success of Holes with another young adult novel, Small Steps (2006). Sachar, who lives in Austin, Texas, continues to write every morning for two hours, but insists, ”I never talk about a book until I’m finished writing it.”
Works in Literary Context
Fantasy and Magic Realism
While best known for Holes, Sachar began his career writing fantasy books for children. Fantasy creates an alternative world for its readers. In this sense, Sachar can be understood as a descendant of fantasy writers such as J. R. R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings) and C. S. Lewis ( The Chronicles of Narnia). Sachar’s first book, Sideways Stories from Wayside School, introduced readers to the Wayside School, a thirty-story school with one classroom on each floor where many fantastic adventures took place.
Sachar’s book Holes uses elements of magic realism. Magic realism is a mode of fiction in which magical or fantastic elements are included in an otherwise realistic story. Some of the most famous writers of magic realism are Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude (1970), and Isabel Allende, author of Of Love and Shadows (1985).
Works in Critical Context
Sachar’s work has proven to be popular with both critics and young readers. As one reviewer writes, ”His underdog characters often triumph in the end, and most of his works have a deeper meaning hiding beneath the surface of his witty writing.”
Marvin Redpost Books
Readers were first introduced to the humorous Marvin Redpost character in Marvin Redpost: Kidnapped at Birth? (1992). The book emphasizes the red-haired Marvin’s feeling of being different from everyone else, including not only his classmates, but his family as well. Another book, Marvin Redpost: A Flying Birthday Cake, introduces a new kid in school named Joe Normal, who turns out to actually be an alien. One reviewer calls it ”a smart, funny twist on the new-kid theme.” Sachar has been commended for wittily and effectively getting across his message in these books, which, in the words of another reviewer, ”remind(s) us that everyone feels alienated at one time or another.” Another reviewer commented on how well Sachar writes for the elementary school audience, writing that he ”exhibits a keen sense of the way a typical third grader thinks, and he sprinkles the text with believable dialogue.”
The 1998 novel Holes, which tells the story of Stanley Yelnats, was somewhat of a departure from Sachar’s previous work. In the words of a writer in the U.S. News & World Report, the book transformed Sachar ”from literary class clown to king of children’s books.” One critic calls Holes ”the greatest critical success of Sachar’s career.” Philip Pullman, writing for London’s Guardian, declares that ”the plain uninflected telling has the quality of a fable, the bright clarity of the narrative being shadowed by an atmosphere hard to define but unmistakably powerful.” Critic Toger Sutton concludes: ”We haven’t seen a book with this much plot, so suspensefully and expertly deployed, in too long a time.” The book won many awards, including the coveted Newbery Medal.
- Children’s Literature Review, vol. 28, Detroit: Gale, 1992.
- Children’s Literature Review, vol. 79. Detroit: Gale, 2002.
- Interview with Louis Sachar. Something About the Author, vol. 63. Detroit: Gale, 1991.
- ”Louis Sachar.” Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2009.
- Cooper, Ilene. Review of Someday Angeline. Booklist (September 1, 1983).
- –. Review of Sixth Grade Secrets. Booklist (November 1, 1987).
- Hearne, Betsy. Review of There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom. Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books (April 1987): 155.
- Phelan, Carolyn. Review of Wayside School is Falling Down. Booklist (May 1,1989).
- Pullman, Philip. ”Teenages Kicks.” Guardian (November 10, 1999).
- Review of Holes. Publishers Weekly (June 27, 1998): 78.
- Review of Holes. Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books (September-October 1998): 593-595.
- Weeks, Brigitte. ”Good for a Laugh.” Washington Post Book World (May 7, 1995): 16, 18.
- ”Louis Sachar.” CBC Magazine. Retrieved November 15, 2008, from http://www. cbcbooks.org/cbcmagazine/meet/louissachar. html.
- Louis Sachar Home Page. Retrieved November 7, 2008, from http://www.louissachar.com.
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